On the holy days of Shabbat and Yom Tov, one may not do melakha, for at these times we transcend the limitations of this world, with all its sinfulness and cursedness, in which man must work hard to sustain and support himself. Originally, when God created man, He did not intend him to work and toil in order to support himself (Kiddushin 82b). Had Adam clung to God, the Source of all life, his sustenance would have been available to him toil-free. It was only after Adam sinned and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that he was expelled from the Garden of Eden, brought curse upon the earth, and was sentenced to having to endure pain and toil to make a living. Thus we read: “Cursed be the ground because of you. By toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground” (Bereishit 3:17-19). Through the hard work decreed upon people to sustain themselves, they gradually make restitution for the sin. On the other hand, on account of this hard work, people are susceptible to immersing themselves in the material world and forgetting their exalted soul. Therefore, God gave us holy days, when we can transcend the sin and the curse that necessitate our working for a living.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov. On Shabbat, all melakha is forbidden, as we read: “But the seventh day is a Shabbat of the Lord your God; you shall not do any melakha” (Shemot 20:10). In contrast, on Yom Tov, melakha involving food preparation for that day is permitted (as explained below).
On Shabbat we ascend to a very high level of faith. As a result of our realization that all is in the hands of God, we subordinate ourselves entirely to divine providence and cease all melakha. We are fully focused on absorbing the bounty that God provides for us. The soul engages in Torah and prayer, and the body engages in food and sleep. In contrast, Yom Tov is more this-worldly and gives expression to our role in repairing the world.
On Shabbat, even in the Garden of Eden man was meant to be elevated to the level of cessation of all work. Yom Tov, though, corresponds to the six weekdays in the Garden of Eden. God left room for human effort in order to include him in the project of repairing and sustaining the world. “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it” (Bereishit 2:15). The difference between then and now is that in the Garden of Eden, the work would have been done in a relaxed, joyful way, and its positive result – improving the world – would have been immediately apparent. Corresponding to this, we may prepare food on Yom Tov, as this work is relatively pleasant and enjoyable.
Even though Shabbat, on which no melakha at all is done, is holier than Yom Tov, the simḥa of Yom Tov is greater, because its holiness is more accessible to us. Additionally, it is in the merit of the Jewish people that the festivals are sanctified. It is thus appropriate that melakha to prepare festive meals for the Jewish people is permitted.
Since Yom Tov is a weekday that the Jewish people transform into a holy day (see 1:3 above), its impact on weekdays is more direct. Cessation from melakha on Shabbat is not meant to guide the six days of the week. Rather, its intrinsic holiness uplifts them. In contrast, Yom Tov, which takes place on weekdays, is more closely connected to the world of action. On these days, we thank God for blessing what we produce, and in turn we focus our actions and consider our role in the world. This is why the Sages tell us that the days of Yom Tov are days of judgment (1:2 above); it is at these times that we earn blessing through our efforts.
The melakhot we may do on Yom Tov are meant to increase the joy we experience when performing a mitzva. Through them, we can perfect all the melakhot we do all week long. Materialistic man is confined and constricted by Adam’s sin; he must work hard to acquire luxury items, which he hopes will make him happy. But they do not make him happy, so he keeps wanting to acquire more and more possessions, becoming enslaved to his appetites and to hard work.
In contrast, one who experiences the simḥa of a festival, through Torah study and festive meals, does not need luxury items, because he is happy with what he has. He is not enslaved to his work, but he sees its constructive value, and he derives satisfaction and benefit from it.